The Techno-Pragmatist Manifesto
A level-headed response to techno-pessimists and techno-optimists.
We are living in the most technologically advanced era of human civilization. Through sheer ingenuity and lots of deliberate effort, we have conquered time and time again the greatest scourges of our species. For a significant part of the world, long gone are the ages of illiteracy, widespread hunger, and the constant threat of death from a myriad of diseases.
Science and engineering have brought us a surplus of resources that only kings could have imagined centuries ago. We have mastered the sky, the sea, and the closer outer space. We have built communication lanes, both physical and digital, that extend throughout the globe. Living a healthy and wealthy (intellectually and otherwise) life has never been easier.
However, we also live in one of the most challenging eras of human civilization. We have stressed our planet to critical levels, and how much environmental damage can be reversed in the short term is unclear. The same technology that has brought us to the apex of civilization now threatens to demolish the very institutions that have long guaranteed the continued improvement of our lives: democracy, science, and media are under siege from misinformation campaigns and censorship attempts.
Last but not least, we have failed to ensure everyone is on the same boat, enjoying equally the marvels of technical progress. While a part of the world has pretty much all they can wish for, another part suffers from those same evils we supposedly eradicated: hunger, disease, illiteracy.
Some view these facts as proof that technological progress is inherently unsustainable and claim we are on the verge of an unavoidable civilizational collapse. Others point to the undeniable technical progress of the last few centuries and hope that, if we just leave the free markets to do their thing, it will all turn out to be the best in the end.
We do not fully align with either techno-pessimists or techno-optimists in thinking that there is a predetermined outcome of technological progress. Instead, we believe technology can be used for good and for evil, and that we, as a society, have both the power and the responsibility to decide how to make the best of it.
We are the techno-pragmatists, and this is our manifesto.
We believe in the broadest notion of humanism, interpreted as an affirmation that each of us have both the power and responsibility to shape our own destiny, under our own terms and values, in harmony with each other and the rest of the world. We believe that seeking the welfare of all individuals, regardless of their place of origin, gender, race, beliefs, and other personal characteristics and preferences, is the ultimate purpose of humanity.
We believe in the enlightenment ideals of logic and rationality as effective means to attain true and useful knowledge. We also believe in the necessity of empirical validation, as no plan, no matter how reasonable, survives its encounter with reality.
We believe the scientific method is still our most effective tool to progressively reveal new pieces of the puzzle of reality, even if, ultimately, the true nature of reality may not be entirely knowable. We also believe there can be other tools effective for gaining knowledge and wisdom in specific domains of the human intellect that need not contradict the principles of rationality and empiricism.
We believe knowledge and information should be as accessible as possible, and that everyone should be empowered to seek their own intellectual growth, to the best of their abilities, and aligned with their personal interests. We also believe it is fair to protect some information, when it is proven that doing so is in the best interests of society.
We believe that technology can produce net gains when deployed responsibly and made sufficiently accessible. We also believe some applications of specific technologies should be discouraged or even actively disallowed, provided sufficient evidence of their harmful effects.
We believe that when deployed within reasonable boundaries and subjected to the right incentives, free markets are effective tools to incentivize innovation and can act as catalysts for technological progress. We also believe some problems are too important to be left for markets to solve and involve social commitment at a large scale.
We believe in the power of public institutions, bestowed upon them by the collective agreement of reasonable individuals, to define and implement the best strategies to keep society healthy. We also believe they should be held accountable for their performance and subjected to the highest standards of scrutiny from independent evaluators.
We believe that all tolerant voices should be heard, especially the dissenting ones, and that many truths —though not necessarily all— are relative to the context of their application. We also believe that extreme intolerance should be dealt with strongly and swiftly.
As researchers, we commit to pursuing knowledge and truth wherever it leads, whether it confirms or contradicts our suppositions. We also commit to keeping our biases and egos in check to the best of our ability and to disclose all potential conflicts of interest in our work. And we commit to submitting our work to our qualified peers for independent and transparent replication or falsification, and to provide the same service to the rest of the community.
As technologists, we commit to the responsible development of advanced technologies, carefully considering the potential harm their deployment can provoke, physical, psychological, financial, sociological, environmental, or otherwise. We also commit to thoroughly evaluating risks and benefits before advocating for the widespread adoption of any technology, regardless of our personal implications in its development, especially when it impacts the most vulnerable minorities.
As educators, we commit to the open dissemination of knowledge and information as far and wide as our practical means allow, rooted on scientific grounds and powered by critical, holistic thinking that considers the technical, sociological, and environmental aspects of the technologies we teach. If we can’t afford to give our knowledge away for free, we commit to making our best effort to ensure those less privileged have a fair chance to access it.
As policymakers, we commit to base decisions on the best available information and seek expert opinions where our knowledge is lacking. We also commit to engaging in honest and good-faith disagreements with our fellow policymakers across the political and ideological spectrum to achieve the best collective outcomes.
Finally, as citizens, we commit to educating ourselves on the benefits and potential harms of all the technology offered to us. We commit to exerting our choosing power, via purchases, votes, consumption, or any other means at our disposal, to direct the markets and the society towards futures that are beneficial in the short term but still sustainable in the long term.
Techno-pragmatism is accepting that the future is not predetermined. That we have the power to decide among many potential futures and the responsibility to make that choice based on reason and evidence, respecting the plurality of interests of all our fellow humans and being thoughtful about our planet and future generations.
Techno-pragmatism is understanding there is no free lunch, only trade-offs, but that doesn’t mean all possibilities are equally good or bad. Some possibilities are objectively better than others, and it takes significant effort to find them.
Techno-pragmatism is committing to the unending, tireless reevaluation of one’s position towards any specific technology. To not fall prey to cheap heuristics or ideological banners. To seek a progressively more refined understanding of the role of technology in shaping society and acting in consequence.
We, the techno-pragmatists worldwide, don’t always agree on the hows, but we share a common ideal: to foster collaboration and innovation in the responsible development of technology, ensuring it benefits a majority and its potential harms are contained and well-understood.
This manifesto is a work in progress. A level-headed, reasonable response to extremist views on both sides of the pessimist-optimist spectrum. If you agree with the sentiment and want to add, change, or remove anything, feel free to leave a comment!
And if you want to sign in, let me know too!